In an average college dorm room one is sure to find three things: scattered textbooks, week-old bowls of macaroni and cheese and Cards Against Humanity. Since its 2011 release, Cards Against Humanity has become the quintessential party game for teenagers and their twenty-something contemporaries. The game’s incredible popularity inspires two important questions: what is it, and why is it so popular?
When asked to explain Cards Against Humanity, I usually describe it as “dirty Apples to Apples.” The game consists of two decks of cards. The black cards ask loaded questions (some tame examples include “What helps Obama unwind?” and “What’s that sound?”) while the white cards contain equally loaded answers (some tame examples include “Velcro” and “Robert Downey Jr.”). The point of the game is to create the bawdiest and ultimately the funniest combinations of black and white cards in order to win points. Anyone who has played the game knows how irreverent the winning combinations usually are, and I invite whomever has not played to imagine the most politically incorrect concepts possible fused with random cultural trivia. That is Cards Against Humanity.
The more interesting question is why a game that is designed to be irreverent is so wildly popular. Is it because, as the game’s tagline suggests, everyone who plays is a horrible person? Is it because the generation so unlovingly christened the “millennials” is devoid of social awareness and empathy? Is it because we as participants in society are morally deviant? The answer to all of these questions is no. The popularity of Cards Against Humanity rests in our psychologically capitalist culture.
From the moment that college-aged Americans were able to speak we were placed in front of a television. From colorful cartoons to blockbuster films, all on ever-larger ever-crisper screens with ever-louder ever-clearer sound quality we were bombarded with stimulation from extremely young ages. We were bred to be a voracious market that would constantly need (to buy) more and more to mirror the stimulation of our childhood. This has been compounded by various branches of the entertainment industry (publishing, movies, television) insisting upon selling formulaic sources of stimulation. Because we learned to consume media so early, we already experienced the archetypal trickster characters, the stereotypical romance characters and the prototypal hero plots by the time they were repackaged and sold to us as young adults time and time again. Essentially, we were born to be bored.
Our exposure to constant stimulation coupled with the limited availability of original entertainment has affected the way we as a generation process information. We need entertainment and we need it as efficiently and richly as possible. We are capitalists with our brains as well as our wallets. Compounding the socio-biological effects of a culture that worships rapid consumption are the deeper psychological effects of the information assault we endured. We were grade-school children when every still and moving image available to us was of billowing black smoke and debris in downtown Manhattan. We were young adolescents when gruesome images of mauled soldiers and prisoners of war were on every newspaper’s front page. We are young adults as we witness slaughters in Syria, Nigeria, Ferguson and anywhere else a Google search can lead. Besides being born to be bored, we were bred to be anxious.
In this context, Cards Against Humanity makes perfect sense as the generation’s board game. Through cards saturated with dry, random humor we are able to create the original stories we were trained to need to consume. Through bawdy and politically incorrect cards we are able to humorously cope with the anxiety of a violent, unjust, globalized world. The true surprise of Cards Against Humanity is not that it has become so popular in four years, but that it was not conceptualized and executed sooner.